The Country Wife

The Country Wife Study Guide

The Country Wife is a Restoration comedy, that is, an English theatrical comedy written during the period 1660-1710, when theatrical performances resumed in London following their 18-year spell of illegality under the reign of the Puritan Commonwealth. As a genre, Restoration comedy is notable for displaying a recrudescence of bawdiness, the public expression of which had been suppressed under the Puritans, and for taking a satirical, or even cynical, view of marriage and sexuality. As will be seen, these characteristics owe much to the genre’s social and historical contexts.

Restoration comedy had for its intended audience the English court and other social insiders; whereas the Elizabethan theater had played to a cross-section of English society, the theater audiences of the Restoration had a far more specific social identity, and the comedies they enjoyed reflect their attitudes and values accordingly. The aristocracy had regained its security and visibility with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, but it had lost for good much of its political and economic significance; as a result, this rather aimless class expended its energies on theatergoing and other, more dissolute antics. As if to compensate for its moral nullity, however, the Restoration aristocracy placed more emphasis than ever on social virtuosity and the punctilios of comportment; essentially, it proposed outward good breeding, rather than virtuous moral conduct, as a principle of societal coherence. This valorization of display, of perfect manners, wit, and the ability to improvise, clearly informs the action and dialogue of Restoration comedies. Moreover, the minimization of genuine moral virtue can be seen to impact the values, such as they are, that inform the plays. Among the Restoration aristocracy, sexual libertinism was fashionable and marriage scorned; consequently, as David Cook and John Swannell put it, marriage generally appears in Restoration plays “at best as a convenient means of acquiring an income, and at worst as a constant source of jealousy and frustration.” Husbands, in particular, tend to look absurd, being either compulsively jealous or obtusely complacent.

In order better to understand this derogation of marriage, it will be convenient to speak of Restoration comedy, and of the values that animate it, as breaking down into two phases, namely the light comedies of the 1660s and the cynical comedies of the 1670s. The former, as B. A. Kachur points out, tended to feature an obligatory couple on the model of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick; this couple’s “mutual antagonism-cum-attraction provided the requisite does of benign sexual energy that resolved itself happily in romantic love and consensual marriage between the subversive libertine and inviolable heroine.” The plots, then, tended toward a decisive social and moral resolution, imaged in the impending licit sexual union between the leading characters: the libertine, and the moral subversion he represented, were domesticated and brought under control by his voluntary submission to the virtuous heroine. By contrast, the comedies of the 1670s were darker; as Kachur observes, they featured “a preponderance of lecherous men and married women who opted for dispassionate and illicit sex and denigrated marriage altogether.” The sexual behavior of these characters tended to effect not resolution but dissolution, and the comedies of the 1670s tended to have ambiguous conclusions, instilling insecurity rather than social affirmation. The Country Wife (1675) is, of course, of this latter type.

From the 1660s to the 1670s, a shift had occurred in contemporary attitudes toward the institution of marriage. This shift was due in part to certain events during the Interregnum, i.e. the period of parliamentary and military rule under the Commonwealth of England, beginning with the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and ending with the restoration of the monarcy under Charles II in 1660. One of these events was the Civil Marriage Act of 1653, passed under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell; this Act required a civil ceremony in order for a marriage to be legally recognized, and by shifting jurisdiction of marriage from church to state, it redefined marriage as a civil contract rather than a sacramental bond. Inevitably, this redefinition diminished the religious awe in which the institution of marriage had long been held. It also enabled a revaluation of the power dynamics obtaining between husband and wife: traditionally, the husband was sovereign in the domestic sphere and the wife was subservient to him; the model for this relation, of course, was the sovereignty of the monarch over his subjects, but as the deposition of Charles I had cast doubt upon the inevitability of the reign of monarchs over the commons, so the Civil Marriage Act made the reign of husbands over wives depend not on a religious necessity but on negotiations between the two parties concerned. Perhaps, then, women needed not be the subservient vassals of their husbands; increasingly, they were viewed as free individuals with rights and personal agency. The tyrannical or neglectful behavior of husbands therefore became grounds for criticism and satire.

Moreover, the conduct of Charles II himself, in both his public and his personal capacities, provided grounds for criticism and even cynicism about both the nation and the marital state. Charles’s governance of England was culpably inept; by the 1670s, it was clear that the hopes of 1660 were to be disappointed and that the King was not to orchestrate stability in the realm or establish trust in the regime. Additionally, his personal example was deplorable: he was infamous for his extramarital affairs and for his illegitimate children, who numbered above a dozen. The King, then, was not the lynchpin of national harmony that he ought to have been; neither was he a decent husband. In the cynical comedies of the 1670s, these facts were made to analogize and comment upon each other. Kachur sums it up: “By the 1670s, marital relationships in the comedies were dominated by characters, like embittered subjects to a seemingly disloyal and detached king, whose skepticism and disenchantment over matrimony bespoke the general malaise and dissatisfaction with the current state of Britain’s restoration, and their want of fidelity, trust, and affection toward their mates, as well as their illicit sexual liaisons, signalled a covert rebellion against a bond that neither party found tenable.” Such, clearly, is the social, political, and moral atmosphere that precipitated Wycherley’s The Country Wife.